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What to Watch For: Week 4 vs. Wisconsin

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Here’s what we’ll be keeping an eye on in this weekend’s game.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

If Oct. 31’s 27-24 loss against Michigan State was a low point for Michigan football under Jim Harbaugh, last week’s 38-21 defeat at Indiana was a nadir of a different type.

The Wolverines are a better team than the Spartans. That’s what made losing to them so unacceptable. Michigan’s never been accused of winning games it shouldn’t ... until now.

What made the Hoosier loss unacceptable, though, was the fact that Indiana is a better team than Michigan. Six years into Harbaugh’s tenure, that shouldn’t be the case.

There are no more excuses at this point. If the Wolverines want to alter the course of any narratives, they simply have to start winning.

Problem is, their Week 4 opponent, Wisconsin, is the best team they’ll have faced this season. The Badgers blitzed Illinois, 45-7, in the season opener on Oct. 23. They averaged a very un-Wisconsin-like 3.3 yards per carry, but behind Graham Mertz’s 20-for-21, 248-yard, 5-touchdown game, that didn’t matter at all. They also held the Fighting Illini to 218 yards of offense, which is much more Wisconsin-like.

The catch: the Badgers haven’t played since then. The weekend after the Illinois win, Mertz tested positive for COVID-19, and head coach Paul Chryst did shortly after. Before long, Wisconsin had a fully-fledged outbreak on its hands. The outbreak has slowed, though, at least enough to where Saturday’s game feels like a solid bet to happen.

But how the Badgers take the field is anybody’s guess. Vegas favors them by 4.5 points, which, based purely on results, seems pretty low. But at least 10 Badgers will not play Saturday due to COVID protocols. Mertz might be one of them, having only recently returned to practice, and it appears the only thing standing in the way of his return to game action is whether or not Wisconsin feels he’s made up enough practice time.

It’s hard to get a read on Saturday’s game for that reason. But it’s a harbinger of sorts that the Badgers’ biggest questions right now are related to who will or won’t play. The Wolverines’ biggest questions lie on the field.

Here’s a handful of those questions that the Wolverines will need to answer if they hope to avoid their first 1-3 start since 1967.

Can Michigan avoid third-and-long scenarios?

Over the last two weeks, the Wolverines are a combined 10-of-28 on third downs. Considering the average distance of those third downs, it’s hard to expect a whole lot better.

On its 11 third-down attempts against Indiana, Michigan needed to gain an average of 11.1 yards. It converted three. In getting itself into those third-and-long situations, the Wolverines averaged less than two yards on first down. As Aria Gerson of the Michigan Daily wrote, Michigan didn’t face a single third down of less than five yards.

A week earlier, the Wolverines were better, but only marginally. Their 17 third downs, of which they converted seven, came from an average distance of 8.9 yards. They faced six third downs of at least 10 yards and none of less than four.

If Michigan wants to move the chains against Wisconsin, it has to do a much better job of creating manageable scenarios. Joe Milton, the Wolverines’ receivers and offensive line aren’t quite good or experienced enough to thrive consistently on third-and-long, when a defense can expect a pass, and a certain type of pass at that. Michigans need to have all of its offensive options available to keep the ball moving. That doesn’t happen when the Wolverines get behind schedule.

How do the Wolverines replace Aidan Hutchinson?

It’s not going to be easy. Michigan’s pass rush was supposed to be the thing holding the defense together; the unit that could compensate for a lack of experience in the secondary with Hutchinson and Paye forming a fearsome duo on the outside of the line.

That happened somewhat against Minnesota. It hasn’t been the case since. The Wolverines haven’t sacked an opposing quarterback in two weeks, and it’s no coincidence that they’ve allowed 665 yards through the air during that time frame.

On Monday, in a crushing blow, Harbaugh announced that Hutchinson would miss the rest of the season due to a leg fracture. The Wolverines will be without a 6-foot-6, 267-pound force that recorded 69 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks last season.

Primary responsibilities in the wake of Hutchinson’s injury would seem to fall to redshirt sophomore Taylor Upshaw, who appears to be Hutchinson’s primary backup at strong-side defensive end and has shown plenty of speed in his limited appearances. But replacing Hutchinson’s contributions will require more than one player — Luiji Vilain, David Ojabo, and even defensive tackles Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith, to name a few.

What’s next for Joe Milton?

The redshirt sophomore hasn’t really had a bad game at quarterback this season. You’d probably classify his three starts so far as excellent, average and average. But while Milton is by no means the primary culprit for Michigan’s struggles, he hasn’t been able to elevate the offense consistently.

Milton’s deep touchdown to Cornelius Johnson in the first quarter last Saturday was representative of his massive arm talent, and the 37-yard completion through the air was something the Wolverines were probably waiting for, considering Milton’s rocket-armed reputation. But Milton, while he threw for 337 yards against Indiana, also completed just 18-of-34 passes and threw two picks, missing plenty of throws in the process. His two interceptions, meanwhile, came on Michigan’s final two drives.

There’s no need for every game to be a referendum on Milton. In truth, he’s completing an acceptable 61 percent of his passes and averaging over eight yards per attempt, while also contributing 102 yards on the ground. Those stats back up the proverbial eye test, which has shown Milton’s velocity and reasonable accuracy on short to mid-range throws and ability to chew up yardage on designed runs outside.

Three games into the season, Milton is still a project, but it’s clear that Josh Gattis has plenty to work with when it comes to him. That’s more than we knew three weeks ago. He’s shown flashes while being far from a disaster. The more reps he gets, the more he should be able to build on those flashes, and if that’s the case against Wisconsin, he has the skill to give Michigan some sort of offensive hope.